Niemann-Pick disease types A and B

Marie T Vanier MD PhD (Dr. Vanier, Director of Research Emeritus at Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale, received honorariums and travel reimbursement from Actelion as a member of an advisory committee and guest speaker, and from Shire for speaking engagements and as a member of a data and safety monitoring board. She received travel expenses from Vtesse as a member of a scientific advisory committee.)
Raphael Schiffmann MD, editor. (Dr. Schiffmann, Director of the Institute of Metabolic Disease at Baylor Research Institute, received research grants from Amicus Therapeutics, Protalix Biotherapeutics, and Shire.)
Originally released November 15, 1997; last updated January 18, 2016; expires January 18, 2019

This article includes discussion of Niemann-Pick disease types A and B, ASM-deficient Niemann-Pick disease, sphingomyelin lipidosis, type A Niemann-Pick disease, type B Niemann-Pick disease, and intermediate type of ASM-deficient Niemann-Pick disease. The foregoing terms may include synonyms, similar disorders, variations in usage, and abbreviations.


The term “acid sphingomyelinase-deficient Niemann-Pick disease” or “ASM-deficient NPD” is now preferred to collectively designate Niemann-Pick disease types A and B. ASM-deficient NPD is a rare autosomal recessive lysosomal lipid storage disease resulting from mutations in the acid sphingomyelinase SMPD1 gene. This name allows inclusion of cases intermediate between the historical severe neuronopathic type A and the non-neuronopathic type B and clearly differentiates this group from Niemann-Pick disease type C, a distinct entity. In this article, the author updates clinical knowledge from surveys in large cohorts of patients, methods for laboratory diagnosis, and genotype/phenotype correlations. She also discusses the progress towards enzyme replacement therapy in type B patients and other experimental therapeutic approaches.

Key points


• Niemann-Pick disease type A and type B are rare autosomal recessive lysosomal lipid storage diseases corresponding to the acid sphingomyelinase-deficient forms of Niemann-Pick disease.


• Classical type A is a severe neurovisceral form with very poor prognosis and limited survival; genetic prevention is crucial.


• The more frequent type B (corresponding to the non-neuronopathic, chronic form with only visceral – mainly spleen, liver, lung – involvement) may be diagnosed from infancy to late adulthood.


• For type B patients, enzyme replacement therapy by recombinant acid sphingomyelinase is not yet available, but a phase 2/3 clinical trial is ongoing.

Historical note and terminology

Niemann-Pick diseases are a heterogeneous group of genetic disorders that share the general clinical and biochemical features of hepatosplenomegaly, with varying degrees of sphingomyelin and cholesterol accumulation in reticuloendothelial and parenchymal tissues. Their recognition had its genesis in Niemann's report of an 18-month-old girl who died of a neurodegenerative disorder accompanied by massive hepatosplenomegaly that was followed by the pathological studies of Ludwig Pick (Niemann 1914; Pick 1927). Klenk later demonstrated that the predominant stored lipid was sphingomyelin.

In 1958 Crocker and Farber published a review of 18 cases showing that there was a wide variability in age of onset and clinical expression as well as in the level of sphingomyelin storage in tissues (Crocker and Farber 1958). This led Crocker to propose a classification of Niemann-Pick disease into 4 subgroups, A to D (Crocker 1961). Type A was characterized by severe, early CNS deterioration and massive visceral and cerebral sphingomyelin storage. Type B showed a chronic course with marked visceral involvement, but with a sparing of the nervous system. Types C and D were characterized by a subacute nervous system involvement with a moderate and slower course as well as milder visceral storage. The rare patients with a non-neurologic adult form, later categorized as the E and F subtypes of Niemann-Pick disease, were ill-defined and most likely corresponded to atypical cases with either type C (E) or type B (F). In 1966 Brady and associates demonstrated a severe deficiency in acid (lysosomal) sphingomyelinase activity in tissues from patients with type A (Brady et al 1966), a finding that was soon extended to type B, but not to types C and D.

The next step was the identification of the gene encoding acid sphingomyelinase, SMPD1, and the demonstration of mutations in patients (Schuchman et al 1992; Schuchman and Desnick 2001), confirming that Niemann-Pick disease types A and B were allelic disorders. Meanwhile, type C was shown to constitute a distinct entity, with alterations in trafficking of endocytosed cholesterol and mutations in the NPC1 or NPC2 genes, type D being an allelic NPC1 form (Patterson et al 2001; Vanier 2010). An increasing number of patients intermediate between the A and B forms have been described (Pavlu-Pereira et al 2005; Wasserstein et al 2006), indicating that the clinical spectrum of sphingomyelinase deficiencies forms a continuum, much like the situation in Gaucher disease. The current nomenclature, thus, needs to be amended. One should also remember that the generic name "Niemann-Pick disease", without specification of a subgroup, is ambiguous because type A and B on 1 side and type C on the other side refer to 2 very distinct disorders. Considering that Niemann-Pick type C is now established under that name, it has been proposed to use for primary sphingomyelinoses (ie, types A, B, and intermediate forms) the collective term of “acid sphingomyelinase-deficient Niemann-Pick disease” (ASM-deficient NPD) or “ASM deficiency” (Schuchman 2007).

The content you are trying to view is available only to logged in, current MedLink Neurology subscribers.

If you are a subscriber, please log in.

If you are a former subscriber or have registered before, please log in first and then click select a Service Plan or contact Subscriber Services. Site license users, click the Site License Acces link on the Homepage at an authorized computer.

If you have never registered before, click Learn More about MedLink Neurology  or view available Service Plans.